Belkin CIO Lance Ralls: Managing Data and Cloud Infrastructure



Michael Krigsman: How are innovative, modern CIOs managing the challenge of data? That's our topic today on CXOTalk. We're speaking with Lance Ralls, who is the global chief information officer at Belkin. I want to say a huge shout out to Nutanix for making CXOTalk possible. Tell us about Belkin and tell us about your role.

Lance Ralls: Belkin International has been around for 36 years. We're a family of brands that include Belkin as a starting point, Linksys, Wemo, which is our home automation IoT, and a newer brand called Phyn that is going to revolutionize the world of water and what we're doing there. We are part of Foxconn Interconnect Technology, whom we merged with last year during an acquisition.

How Is The CIO Role Evolving?

Michael Krigsman: Lance, the role of the CIO is changing dramatically. From your perspective, what's going on? How is that role evolving?

Lance Ralls: Back in the '70s and '80s, we were talking mainframe. We were getting into all the nitty-gritty of the client-server in the '90s, and so there was a lot of focus on just getting systems to work. Now it's not about getting systems to work. It's about allowing those systems and the data you have to really expand what your business is doing and allowing your business to innovate, create, and really be able to grow.

Michael Krigsman: The risk of not getting involved from a business perspective, what is that risk?

Lance Ralls: We could become irrelevant if we're not involved in what's going on with the business and understanding what's there and what the needs are. In my mind and what I've seen, the only way to keep relevancy and to be at the forefront is to really be hand-in-hand and lockstep with the business and what they're doing.

Michael Krigsman: How is it even possible for a modern CIO to not be lockstep with the business?

Lance Ralls: We get caught a little too much in the day-to-day. There is always a fire. There's always something going on from a technology perspective. You can't speak just tech to the business.

You have to say, I always say, I'm a bilingual CIO. I think not enough CIOs are bilingual and we try to just talk tech.

We try to talk tech jargon and sometimes the business doesn't quite understand what we want and then they don't want to invite you to the business meeting because they're like, "Look. He's going to talk a bunch of Latin. I don't understand it, so we're just not going to have him here as part of the conversation."

CIOs Must Speak In The Language Of Business

Michael Krigsman: What's the underlying dynamic that drives that conversation to be not about business or using too much technology jargon?

Lance Ralls: When I came in here, our team, every one of our goals on our team had what they call an SLA, service level agreement. If you ask the business what that is, they probably couldn't tell you what SLA stood for and they certainly didn't know what it means to them as a company.

As an example, we moved to an NPS score, which is net promoter score, which our business uses to see how well we're doing with our external customers and consumers. That's something they understand. Now, we have an NPS score to our internal customers of how well we're doing. That resonates with the business and they understand what that means.

Michael Krigsman: How did you come up with that concept? That's a pretty unusual way to think about IT.

Lance Ralls: Really, it came from, how does our business operate and how can we start to modify things to operate in that. The NPS just came to me as, this is something we need to do and we need to operate this way.

It also changed the mindset of my department because, when I first got here, you could make an SLA and sometimes that would still not satisfy the customer because they're like, "Well, that should have taken an hour and it took three days. You actually met your SLA, but it doesn't help me."

Whereas, there were other situations where they know something is going to take five, six, seven days. It's complicated. We come in and do it in four days. Well, we missed our SLA but they're extremely happy and proud of, "Wow, we got this done a lot faster than I thought and I can go off and do my business." That shift in even mindset of my department focus on the customer experience versus some SLA nuance has really helped us shape better customer service to our internal stakeholders.

How the CIO Serves Internal Stakeholders

Michael Krigsman: It sounds like you're thinking about IT as, what, a marketing function or a part of your job is marketing?

Lance Ralls: It is absolutely part of the job to market what we do to make sure people don't think of us as just back office but, really, providing solutions. You hit it perfectly, Michael, in the sense that when I am thinking about what to do, I am thinking about our end customers and our end consumers, but I have to focus on our internal employees because, if I service them well, then they can service our end customers and consumers well. That is a focus of ours is to make sure we're serving our internal stakeholders extremely well so that those external stakeholders and our customers are happy with their experience.

Michael Krigsman: I'm hearing three different things.Lance Ralls: Sure.Michael Krigsman: Number one is the core activities that IT performs as a function.

Lance Ralls: Yes.

Michael Krigsman: Number two, your relationship to your external stakeholders, external to IT, namely the people primarily that work at Belkin.

Lance Ralls: Yes.

Michael Krigsman: Then, number three is your folks inside IT.

Lance Ralls: That's exactly correct. You've got to be able to do the blocking and tackling, as they say, in IT. You've got to make sure your systems are up, running, functioning the way they are. But once you have that, then you can really pull the playbook open, really start doing more and more with the business, and tackle more value add opportunities with the business.

Michael Krigsman: Lance, elaborate on that.  How does the product mix of Belkin and the timing of your releases affect IT?

Lance Ralls: What is relevant for the systems we need to focus on to help get those products out and to be successful to be out in the e-commerce space, to be in the retail space? How do we support the creative teams, the marketing teams, the sales teams, the finance teams? All of the pieces of the business, our product development teams, building the foundation that they work on top of to be able to exponentially increase their work is our goal so that we can get products out the door faster.

If we don't have good systems and processes in place, then those things take longer than they should. In our world, being first to market is important and you want to get that latest and greatest product out there. If you don't have that trust between the business and technology, what you end up with is a system and a product that's not working for the business and is causing them to struggle and take longer to be able to build out our products and our opportunities.

Michael Krigsman: It sounds like a big part of what you do or a very important part is serving as a bridge or a translator almost between the intent rather than the words of the business.

Lance Ralls: Yes, that is well reframed and exactly correct.

CIO Metrics For Business Transformation

Michael Krigsman: Are there metrics that you use, aside from NPS, for measuring your success?

Lance Ralls: We're always looking at places to put in better metrics for what we do. Another example of a good metric to track is first time to resolution. I'm a big believer in, it's okay to fail. You try not to constantly fail, of course, but you want to learn from your failures and learn quickly. At the same time, we want to try to get it right most of the time, and so tracking that metric of first time to resolution and it fixes the business issue is an important metric.

When we look in our systems, it's ensuring that we understand our uptime and what's going on in that area; understanding how much data is coming in and what we're doing there. All those things we're tracking on how fast we can get things done.

Michael Krigsman: The traditional metrics, the traditional IT metrics don't go away, but you're layering on a whole new set of important goals.

Lance Ralls: Absolutely. You still need your IT metrics of your systems and what they're doing and how long they've been up, all that standard technical jargon, but you need to find those metrics that then fit the business and what we're doing, tackling, and accomplishing.

What Data Does Belkin International Manage?

Michael Krigsman: Lance, let's shift gears here and talk about data.

Lance Ralls: Okay.

Michael Krigsman: Data is increasingly important for every business. To begin, what kinds of data are you managing and can you give us a sense of the volumes of data that you manage?

Lance Ralls: From the data that we get in, some of the most valuable information that we pull into our systems and then are able to translate out into our sales and finance team is really what's happened at the point of sale. What is happening with our customers or the retailers, where that information is coming in, and then understanding where things are going.

We're making decisions on that data of what's working, what's not working, and it is a fluid situation. In this business, as I'd mentioned, our CEO and founder, in the 36 years of doing this business, is always talking about how you have to be quick to adapt and you've got to be able to get in there, get your hands dirty, and see what's going on.

That data is brought in and we feed that out. It's important for then our analysts and our financial teams that they're presenting that to the business, that they can feel that the numbers are accurate, that it's been correct from our world into their world and be able to make real decisions on the business. If we're not doing that, then the business could make decisions that are based on false data and really could cause bigger issues down the road.

What Are The Data Sources At Belkin International?

Michael Krigsman: The data is coming in from retailers, from your e-commerce site, and what do you do with it?

Lance Ralls: The biggest thing is, yes, we've got data coming in. Think about, we've got data coming in from the very beginning of a product and inventory, the whole supply chain, and logistics of what's going on out there and where things are. Our supply and demand planning, all of those things are pulling this data in.

It's using other pieces of data. The data from the retailers is dictating what we're doing in supply and demand planning, as an example. That information, when it comes in, we have a team that has to get that data into the proper format because every retailer doesn't necessarily put it in the same way and there is some massaging we have to do. We try to automate as much as possible to reduce human error, but you do have to massage that data and make sure it's in a format that then could be used by the finance teams, the business, and sales teams to use that.

Relationship Between Belkin International And Nutanix

Michael Krigsman: I know you're working with Nutanix.

Lance Ralls: Yes.

Michael Krigsman: What are you doing with Nutanix?

Lance Ralls: Nutanix has been a great partner for us. In this last year, we have gone to build our own private cloud. There is a benefit of a public cloud, having things on-premise, and then now a private cloud.

With Nutanix, they've really given us the ability to build our own private cloud to be more scalable, to be able to take in more data as needed, more or less, so we can really scale up and down with Nutanix. It's a really easy system that allows our business, if we need to spin something up, just like you would in the cloud. It allows us to do that on our personal cloud. There are real benefits to being in your personal cloud versus a private cloud.

How Should A CIO Decide Among Public, Private, Or Hybrid Cloud?

Michael Krigsman: That's an interesting question: private cloud, public cloud, hybrid cloud. It's almost a religious battle at times. Sort that through for us, please.

Lance Ralls: It is an interesting conversation because I will hear certain things that make me cringe a little bit. I've been in situations a few years back where someone will say, "Oh, no, no. We don't want to go to the cloud at all. It's not secure. It's too scary." Really, those are bad ways to look at it on both fronts.

I think you have to look at each situation and there are absolutely valid reasons to go and be on-premise, to be in the public cloud, and to be in the private cloud. In my mind, if you're not doing a little of everything, it gets a little complicated. Maybe less and less of the on-prem as you go more into your private cloud but, eventually, we will always have a private and a public cloud offering here to our business.

One of the reasons and the benefits of that, and it can go both ways. Sometimes they just need to test something quickly and so we can give them something on our Nutanix systems and in the private cloud and they're off and running. Sometimes they want to go into the public cloud because that's where the focus is going to be. We're either building products that are going to be out in the public cloud, whatever the case may be.

We are constantly evaluating if that is in fact in the right place. When we go into production with what we're doing in the business, we may find, ooh, this would be better in a private cloud versus a public cloud or vice versa. We're always looking to go back and forth between those two offerings.

Michael Krigsman: How do you make the decision about what to do?

Lance Ralls: That's interesting with the private cloud because you are in your data centers still or in a data center, I should say. We don't have our own data centers anymore, so we are out in a third-party data center. Yes, I could see someone saying, "Yeah, a private cloud is a really private cloud."

Michael Krigsman: I have to say, okay, but if it's not in your data center then it's in somebody's cloud.

Lance Ralls: Correct.

Michael Krigsman: The whole thing becomes absolutely confusing anyway.

Lance Ralls: Right. Yeah, I know. The whole cloud thing still makes me laugh when you see little comics and CEOs talking about this cloud, this white puffy thing up in the top and how does that tie to my business?

Yeah, for us, having the ability to have the virtualization and we virtualize our data; we virtualize our systems. Everything is virtualized to speed up what we deal with and to reduce our footprint as well. When you virtualize your data and your systems, you're reducing your needs and footprint and, thus, costs to do that.

When we're looking at it, you asked what are some of the things we look at. It really comes down to cost, scalability, reliability, and what's truly needed from the business from a velocity standpoint. We help the velocity of business and what we're doing based on those decisions.

There's no one right answer. I can't sit here and tell you, yep, in these ten examples, go public and, in these ten examples, go private. You really have to look at each situation and decide, yep, this is the reason we're going to go and we're going to give up maybe some costs but it's going to be more scalable and reliable. We're just not sure where the business is going to be.

Then you have other times where it's like, okay, this is pretty stable. We feel like it can be and sit in this environment at a relatively good cost and good reliability, and so we're comfortable with where that's at.

When To Use Private Cloud vs. Public Cloud

Michael Krigsman: Can you summarize this equation? There are so many components, but can you give us, directionally, thoughts or advice on how to assemble this equation?

Lance Ralls: Yeah. Just like any equation, you have to understand how many variables you have and, hopefully, you have all but one of the variables so you can solve the equation. Sometimes you don't, and so what you have to do is, at times, do your best work and a bit of best guess on, here are the six or seven variables. Examples again would be cost, understanding the business.

You've got these big companies out here now that start from nothing and all of a sudden blow up into the unicorn and overnight success. They had to anticipate that or they wouldn't get there.

You have to have a little bit of a crystal ball. You've got to understand where you're going from a cost and reliability standpoint, again understanding the business. Then you take your best guess today.

Michael Krigsman: One very important question is the data. How do you decide where to put your data?

Lance Ralls: We obviously have sensitive data in the world of privacy policy really coming up.  California has got one coming. There are more than 15 states out there looking for their own privacy policy. With GDPR out in the European Union, all of those areas have made us be sensitive to not only where we keep the data but how we secure the data.

You have to secure the data not just from external folks, but from internal folks as well. There are certain situations where we can't have certain people inside of our company, inside of Foxconn Interconnect Technology and Belkin International that can see certain data. We have to be very careful about that.

Virtualizing the data allows us to mask the data and we keep that data in our private cloud where it's very well managed here. I'm not saying the public cloud can't secure that data, but we're very sensitive to controlling that sensitive data and not having as much PII and data in the public cloud.

Advice For CIOs To Stay Relevant To The Business

Michael Krigsman: Lance, we began this conversation with a discussion of the changing role of the CIO. As we finish up, what advice do you have for CIOs who are facing this prospect of either growth or even dropping into irrelevancy for the business? What advice do you have for folks?

Lance Ralls: I like to say that my CIO title is not chief infrastructure officer because, if we do that, then we will go into irrelevancy because you can get a public cloud to do that. If you're not adding value to the business then that's what you are is a chief infrastructure officer.

I really focus my team on what was the CIO to start? That was to be a chief information officer. You are to manage and be responsible for the information that your business is using and relying on to make decisions. Quite frankly, as I'd mentioned earlier, if you're not having a good conversation with your marketing team and understanding how the creative mind works and how they're looking at things, and you're not having a good business conversation with your sales team, your finance team, your product team, then you're not allowing those teams to do what they do best.

CIOs Must Speak The Language Of Business

My biggest advice there is, the only way to get in the conversation is to start speaking their language. A creative person, a finance person, a business person, and a product development person are all going to talk a different language. Whether you're talking to an engineer, a creative, a marketer, a salesperson, or finance, you've got to be able to find a way to weave your technology conversation and message into their language to have a real genuine conversation.

What that leads to when you do that and you try to work in that operation is that you build trust with them. Then your team trusts you internally because you're speaking to them. You're speaking to the business. They're hearing the message from the business.

Communication into my IT department is extremely valuable. They often will say that we didn't know that was going on. We didn't understand why we were doing this. By providing that information both to my internal team and to the business, that allows us all to be on the same page and drive forward in this day of innovation.

Michael Krigsman: Successful IT, therefore, actually is about successful communication.

Lance Ralls: That is well stated. If you're not communicating—you mentioned it earlier—if you're not marketing, you're not branding what IT is doing, then you're not going to be successful. You're going to be a chief infrastructure officer and you're going to be irrelevant in a very short time.

Michael Krigsman: Lance Ralls, Global Chief Information Officer of Belkin, thank you so much.

Lance Ralls: Thank you. Appreciate it.



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